A senior cabinet minister has called for the UK to show the rest of the world how to move from “pandemic to endemic” Covid, as he suggested it would be helpful to cut the isolation period to five days to ease workforce shortages.
The education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, played down suggestions that the government was imminently about to start charging for free rapid Covid tests, known as lateral flows, which would lead to fewer infections in the community being caught.
But he said the ultimate aim was to move to a position where Covid was endemic in the UK and the country had learned to live with the virus.
Zahawi also said the government’s health experts and scientists were looking at whether it would be possible to move from asking people to isolate for just five days after a positive test, rather than the current seven days – recently cut from 10 days.
He told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday: “It would certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others.
“But I would absolutely be driven by advice from the experts, the scientists, on whether we should move to five days from seven days. What you don’t want is to create the wrong outcome by higher levels of infection.”
He added: “I hope we will be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic, and then deal with this however long it remains with us, whether that’s five, six, seven, 10 years.”
The move to further cut the self-isolation period has been mooted in the past fortnight, but experts fear up to 30% of those released on day five may still be infectious. The US allows people to leave the house after five days, but citizens have to start isolating only after testing positive, rather than from their first symptoms.
Zahawi said about 8.5% of the schools workforce was off, with 90% of secondary schools so far having reopened after Christmas.
He said staff absence rates “will increase, no doubt, because now schools are back we’re going to see an increase in infection rates”.
Zahawi said he was making contingency plans for rising rates of staff absence, saying some schools had had up to 40% off but remained open. “I have to have contingency plans for 10, 15, 20, 25% absenteeism because Omicron is far more infectious,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning.
With the move from pandemic to endemic Covid, the Sunday Times reported free lateral flow tests (LFTs) could be limited to high-risk settings – such as care homes, hospitals and schools – and to people with symptoms. This was set out as an eventual aim by the government’s winter Covid plan, which said at some stage the government’s provision of free lateral flows would end and “individuals and businesses would bear the cost”.
Zahawi told Sky News this was “absolutely not where we are at”, with 425m lateral flows available for January to help identify cases in the Omicron wave.
Pressed on whether the government had plans to scrap the free tests, he said: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
The reports on LFTs were met with instant disapproval from opposition politicians including Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
She wrote on Twitter: “If UK government is really considering this (Scottish government certainly not signed up to it) it is utterly wrongheaded.
“Hard to imagine much that would be less helpful to trying to ‘live with’ Covid.”
Sturgeon added that testing was “vital” and the Scottish government would have to consider continued funding from its existing budgets, and raised the prospects of such a move affecting the way public expenditure was allocated to devolved nations.
The Scottish government accesses lateral flow tests that are procured by the UK government on behalf of all four countries, and it pays for them via funding arrangements as part of the UK-wide national testing programme.
Labour joined Sturgeon in urging the prime minister against the move. The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said: “This would be the wrong decision at the wrong time.
“Testing is absolutely crucial for keeping infections under control and avoiding the need for further restrictions that impact on our lives, livelihoods, and liberties.
“This additional cost will also hit families at a time when they face a cost of living crisis. It means people simply won’t take them, putting others at risk. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats said that scrapping free lateral flows would create a “cost of living with Covid crisis” for millions.
Government sources have disputed the report and said it was too early to say what the future held for free lateral flow tests.
The rapid tests were made available to everyone in England, crucially including those without symptoms, in April.
They have been seen as a key way of suppressing the virus and have given people confidence to more safely mix with their loved ones, particularly around Christmas as cases of Omicron soared.
A government spokesperson did not address whether access to free tests would be scaled back in the future, but said: “Everyone can continue to get free tests and we are continuing to encourage people to use rapid tests when they need them.
“Testing continues to play an important role in helping people live their day-to-day lives, keep businesses running and keep young people in school.”
The reports came as official figures showed more than 150,000 people have now died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
With a total of 150,057 deaths by that way of measuring, the UK became the seventh country to pass the milestone, after the US, Brazil, India, Russia, Mexico and Peru.
Separate figures from the Office for National Statistics show there have been 174,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.